Tuesday, June 9, 2009




Former Secretary of Defense & President of the World Bank 
At a Forum on "13 Days" 
- Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis - 
At the John F. Kennedy Library 
Boston, Massachusetts, October 1, 2002 

Robert McNamara came out of the Harvard Business School and World War II a Whiz Kid, and whizzed his way up to the presidency of the Ford Motor Co., just in time to be plucked to become Secretary of Defense for President John F. Kennedy

Apparently, and not just by his own account, he played a cautionary role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those who have not lived through the crisis may not appreciate how close we seemed to come to nuclear war then. 

But he was anathematized for Vietnam; he remained Secretary of State when Lyndon Johnson became president and escalated the war. 

In early 1968, McNamara decamped for the presidency of the World Bank. There he remained until he retired in 1981 at sixty-five. The World Bank is certainly not without its critics, but his colleagues credit him with transforming "the institution from being a 'bank' into being the world's premier development agency," in order to concentrate on fighting poverty. 

In 1995 he published (with Brian Vandemark) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, uncorking a new round of controversy: He admitted mistakes; was he sorry enough? 

Then in 2003, Errol Morris released The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. He found McNamara surprisingly approachable, and willing to talk.  And talk. 

But we are once again at war, again fighting enemies who favor "asymmetrical" warfare, and an old "metric" from the McNamara/Vietnam era has come back, and gained currency: The Body Count. The military, and Donald Rumsfeld, had turned against it in Iraq. But now we are being told -- seriously -- that it is good to use in Afghanistan. 

David Halberstam named his Vietnam book The Best and the Brightest, and bridled afterwards when some did not realize he meant the term ironically. Are we in danger of another Best and Brightest moment?

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